|Manship at work in his studio|
The ancient Greeks revered owls for their wisdom and wise looking eyes. The owl was linked with Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron protector of Athens. While the Greeks might have respected and admired owls, in many cultures, the owl was (and still is) seen as a symbol of death; an omen of impending doom and misery. In Africa, owls are associated with sorcerers and witches. In Arabia, owls were reputed to carry off children in the night. Whether as a symbol of protection or death, owls continue to fascinate us and are still represented in literature and the arts.
Sculptor Paul Manship (1885-1966) is perhaps best known for Prometheus in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. However, this Minnesota native also celebrated owls in his artwork. In his sculptures, Paul Manship accomplished the difficult task of melding beauty and elegance with a strong contemporary aesthetic. Many of his pieces are the very essence of timelessness. His animal sculptures are particularly interesting, at least to me, because not only did he manage to create beautiful art, he also created art that had a realistic, humorous albeit subtle quality.
|Owl, Juley Collection|
As described in Paul Manship by Harry Rand, Owl (#1) “places the bird in a quasi-landscape setting as replete as an Audubon study”, due to the fact that the owl is shown perched on a tree stump. Rand continues with his assessment of the sculpture, stating that “a hint of archaism resounds in the bird’s plumage, which Manship treated as a repeated pattern whose regularity recalls classical imbrication (the overlapping of tiles or shingles).” While I agree with both statements, I also have to add my own two cents.
Owl (#1) reminds me very much of the archetypal owl we all think of when we think of an owl: majestic, with beautiful glossy feathers, crested “ears”, powerful talons, and large golden eyes. This sculpture is a bronze embodiment of the Great Horned Owl. Some people may think of “Archimedes” from the 1963 Disney movie The Sword and the Stone, or perhaps the owl from the “Tootsie Pop” commercial. I however, have a different recollection. I can vividly remember hearing the call of the Great Horned Owl many years ago.
My grandparents lived in Minocqua, up in the north woods of Wisconsin. As a child, every summer my family and I would pile into the car and drive to my grandparents house. While on vacation, we would go on long walks through the woods. If you have never experienced what it’s like to walk through the forest on a sunny July day, hear the crunch of acorns and twigs beneath your feet, listen to the lazy buzzing of insects, and look for raspberries to eat, then you’re missing out on something wonderful. At twilight, we would hear the lonely, mournful cry of the Great Horned Owl. Its call would reverberate through the woods; eerie yet beautiful.
According to Rand, Owl (#2), “demonstrates the liability Manship faced when he returned to the regalia of mythology with none of its faith . . . all of the mysterious self-containment of the earlier Owl seems exhausted by the later work, which altogether lacks the brilliant counterpoise of small decorative elements with a fresh overall conception.” While Owl (#2) might not be as “refined” as Owl (#1), I think that it’s no less artistic or entertaining.
Whereas Owl (#1) is proud and haughty, with a stern gaze, Owl (#2) is light and comical, and seems to be almost smiling. The fact that Owl (#2) is perched atop a sphere makes the illusion that much more whimsical, perhaps a nod to the seals of the old circuses who balanced precariously atop similar spheres. In fact, he seems to be almost saying “Hey, look ma, one foot!”
If you find yourself intrigued by these owl sculptures, there are many more photos of Manship’s animal sculptures in the Juley Collection. In addition to animals, the collection also features Manship’s sundials, portraits, medals, monuments, and many other interesting items. A favorite sculpture of mine is Hercules Upholding the World –Armillary Sphere. I am also fond of Model for John F. Kennedy Inaugural Medal; a simple, yet strikingly handsome portrait of the late president. Whatever you choose to look at, have fun! Who knows? You might find yourself having a hoot!